SC bus driver: ‘I’m just a mother who got 40 kids off to safety’
An Upstate lawmaker renewed his push for South Carolina to heed advice from national experts and join several states mandating seat belts on school buses.
Lawmakers heard testimony Tuesday on a bill by state Rep. Gary Clary, R-Pickens, that would require new school buses be equipped with three-point lap and shoulder seat belts, the same as passenger vehicles.
Clary introduced a similar bill in 2017 that would have required every school bus in the state to be outfitted with a seat belt. The measure languished over concerns about being able to evacuate students quickly if a bus catches fire or is submerged in water.
The proposed safety feature would only affect buses manufactured after the bill becomes law, safeguarding the state against costly upgrades to its aged school bus fleet.
“When you try to retrofit a bus and something goes wrong with the way it’s installed, then you have liability issues … not to mention the sheer cost of it,” Clary said. “So I wanted to pick a point sometime in the future to start upgrading our fleet.”
All new school buses owned and operated by a private school or operated under contract for a private school also would be required to have seat belts, according to the bill.
The S.C. Department of Education estimates the proposed addition of seat belts to new school bus purchases would tack on at least $5 million more to the cost of replacing school buses in accordance with the state’s replacement schedule. That includes about $6,000 per special needs bus and $15,000 per regular 77-passenger bus to add seat belts. The department’s current replacement cycle recommends 378 new buses be purchased in the 2020-21 fiscal year.
“We are certainly supportive of students being transported to school safely,” Emily Heatwole, director of governmental affairs for the S.C. Department of Education, told the panel of lawmakers. But, she added, she would want to ensure the bill comes with additional money to maintain the speed with which the department replaces the state’s fleet of 5,600 school buses each year.
Heatwole, too, stressed that children are safe on state school buses now, and are most endangered when getting on or off the bus.
South Carolina has had few deaths related to school bus crashes, according to the S.C. Department of Education. The most recent occurred in 2015, where a pre-schooler, who was wearing a seat belt, died after a bus collided with a tractor trailer.
Another occurred more than 40 years ago, and that death was due to a tree striking the bus, according to the Department of Education.
But while “school buses are inherently safe in their own right, it only takes one accident to make a believer out of anyone if they’re directly affected by it,” Clary said.
The former judge said he was spurred, in part, to file the legislation following an Oct. 19 school bus crash in Greenwood County that injured nine fourth-graders and four adults.
At least one student and two adults were airlifted to Greenville Memorial Hospital, according to news reports. Eight students and two adults were taken by ambulance to a nearby medical center after the bus struck a utility poll and plunged down an embankment.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell seat belts would have helped,” Clary told The State.
The National Transportation Safety Board last year recommended for the first time that all new large school buses be equipped with lap and shoulder belts. The recommendation followed a special NTSB investigation into deadly school bus crashes in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Baltimore in November 2016. The two crashes injured 37 people and killed a dozen.
Eight states require seat belts on school buses, and the NTSB recommended that New Jersey, Florida, Louisiana and New York upgrade requirements from lap belts to lap and shoulder belts.
Both the NTSB and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, however, stress the school bus is still statistically the safest way to get to school. While four to six school-aged children die each year on school vehicles, that’s less than 1 percent of all traffic fatalities nationwide, according to the NHTSA.
The highway safety administration notes school buses are designed to be safer than passenger vehicles in preventing crashes and injuries, including protective seating.
“(Children) are protected from crashes by strong, closely-spaced seats that have energy-absorbing seat backs,” according to the NHTSA.
Lawmakers Tuesday were hesitant to sign on.
“Are we fixing a problem?” state Rep. Tim McGinnis, R-Horry, asked during the hearing.
The bill is unlikely to pass the General Assembly this year, but could be taken up next year.